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Costa Concordia disaster is a PR problem for the entire cruise ship sector

If only it were possible to blame the whole disaster on Captain Schettino’s recklessness on Friday 13th last, Carnival – ultimate owner of the Costa Concordia – would surely have succeeded in cauterizing a brand crisis of epic proportions quite brilliantly.

No one could have moved faster to pin it all on human error. The holding company of Costa Cruises chose its target well. As scapegoats go, Schettino is a pretty egregious one: less Captain Courageous than Lord Jim aboard the steamship Patna. Once having foundered his ship, he assured his place in infamy by abandoning it before many of his passengers.

At first, Carnival’s corporate strategy worked. Cruise bookings only shivered in the wake of the disaster – most people seeming to accept that the shipwreck was a unique occurence. Only later did some awkward questions begin to bubble to the surface. For example:

How come, if Schettino was such a clown (he apparently had previous, non-lethal, form), that Costa entrusted him with the destiny of over 4,000 souls? What of the calibre of other Costa commanders?

How come, almost 100 years after the RMS Titanic disaster, an identifiably similar set of circumstances managed to overwhelm another ‘state-of-the-art’ and ‘unsinkable’ cruise ship? In both cases, the ships quickly succumbed to what should have been a containable collision; the emergency muster procedures were shambolic; and the lifeboats – of which there were not enough – wouldn’t launch properly. Perhaps the only real difference is that Captain Smith chose to go down with his ship. Not unnaturally, marine engineers have called into question the inherent safety of what, in effect, is a high-sided floating hotel whose design is heavily influenced by commercial imperatives.

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I mention these things because what was formerly a crisis affecting billionaire Micky Arison’s cruise operator (admittedly the world’s largest, encompassing such brands as Cunard and P&O) has now clearly spilled into the sector as a whole.

Only this week, Carnival revealed that fleet-wide booking volumes declined “in the mid teens” following the disaster. Just as ominously, Royal Caribbean Cruises, the world’s second largest cruise operator, has reported that Quarter One earnings could be up to 60 per cent below expectations due to the fall-off in bookings. This during the so-called ‘Wave season.” the most active booking period of the year.

No doubt the cruise ship will re-establish itself in time as one of the statistically safest ways of taking a holiday. But not before a few more waves from this disaster have swamped the bow-deck.

Note on the image. It just proves (as I used to say when smaller-scale mishaps like this visited Marketing Week) the integrity of the editorial team. Clearly no conversation whatsoever had taken place with the commercial people. But for this to happen to the Belfast Telegraph, of all titles..! Its offices are only a stone’s throw from the Harland and Wolff shipyard which built – the Titanic. You’d think they would have learned from experience.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.
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